Roasted pumpkin soup.

By Friday, I was coasting on fumes. There’s a phenomenon called “the let-down effect,” wherein after a period of stress, your body just sort of gives up and gives in. I find myself most productive under a certain amount of stress – I can go and go and go and make and think and do, but I have a hard time prioritizing, like, basic human needs and so by the end of this past particularly demanding season, I was dehydrated and overtired and on antibiotics and just sort of crashed. (I know that this is problematic, and that claiming stress is integral to my success or whatever is akin to perpetuating this un-ideal, but that’s a topic for another time.)

When I was finally feeling better, “carrot soup” was just the thing.

A better parent might be more upfront about things, but I am the tired wrangler of a very opinionated six-year-old. He thinks the soup is made of carrots, but it’s made of vegetables and he eats it, so I don’t correct him. He thinks he hates squash, and I’d rather he eat the soup he likes than take a stand against it, which he would, because he is as stubborn as a mule and his mother.

This is his favourite soup, and my go-to feel-better soup. It tastes a little bit Vietnamese, and it’s made with kabocha squash, also known as Japanese pumpkin, which you can buy pretty cheaply almost anywhere in the fall and winter. I buy a few at a time and keep them on the porch; they’re fine for a couple of months if kept cool and dry. Kabocha squash tastes a bit sweeter than butternut squash, and is a great source of nutrients and fibre – roasting it brings out the sweetness, and is important to the flavour of this soup. You can roast it ahead of time if you like; it will keep in the fridge for a couple of days once cooked.

Tips

Coconut cream can be on the pricey side as it’s often stocked in the supermarket aisle where cocktail mixes are sold, but you can buy it fairly inexpensively at Trader Joe’s; I get mine for around two dollars a can at Fruiticana in Vancouver, but any Southeast Asian or Indian market will have cans of coconut cream at a reasonable price.

Serve with a wedge of fresh lime, your favourite hot sauce, a handful of chopped scallions, and a few dots of sesame oil, if you like. Bread with too much butter is also a nice accompaniment, but I feel like that, from me, may be a bit redundant by now.

Roasted pumpkin soup

(Makes four servings.)

  • 1 kabocha squash
  • 2 tbsp. olive or coconut oil
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 stalk lemongrass, trimmed, white and light yellow inner parts only, thinly sliced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 heaping tablespoon minced fresh ginger
  • 2 carrots, peeled and diced
  • 2 tsp. garam masala
  • 1/2 tsp. ground turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
  • 2 tbsp. brown sugar
  • 1 tbsp. fish sauce*
  • 13.5 oz/400mL can coconut cream
  • Salt, to taste
  • 1 tsp. sesame oil

*If you want to keep this vegetarian or vegan-friendly, substitute the fish sauce for a tablespoon of soy sauce.

Preheat your oven to 400°F. Adjust oven racks so that there’s one in the middle, and one one directly below. Place a sheet pan or baking dish on the lower rack. (This is an important step, especially if you’re the one who usually gets stuck cleaning the oven.)

Stab the squash around the top in four places, then turn it upside down and stab it four more times, until the knife cuts through the skin and just pierces the flesh.

Place the squash in the oven, and leave, undisturbed, for 45 minutes to an hour. A sticky, sap-like liquid should bubble from the cut marks, and it should smell a bit like roasted chestnuts. Set aside to cool. You can do this step up to three days in advance; wrap the cooled squash in a bit of foil or put it into a large zip-lock bag until you’re ready to use it.

Halve the cooled squash, and scoop out the seeds. Scrape the flesh from the skin, and set aside. Discard the skin, stem, and seeds.

In a Dutch oven over medium-high heat, sauté onion, lemongrass, garlic and ginger until shimmering and fragrant, about three minutes. Add carrots, garam masala, turmeric, and pepper, and stir so that every chunky bit in the pot is coated in the spices.

Add chicken or vegetable stock and simmer until carrots are tender, ten to fifteen minutes.

Add squash, and remove the pot from the heat. Purée using a blender or immersion blender. If using a standard blender, blend in batches.

Return the pot to the heat. Add brown sugar, fish sauce, and coconut cream, stirring to melt coconut cream. Taste, adjusting seasonings as needed – sometimes kabocha squash can benefit from a bit more salt, but the amount you need will depend on the saltiness of your broth.

When the soup returns to a simmer, stir in sesame oil and serve.

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Stock.

Simmering stock

Happy Holidays! Did you celebrate? How was it? We have been busy, and apparently neglectful; the surest way to know we’ve not been home enough is the smell of cat pee on our bath towels and dirty laundry. And it’s not just the cat – our waistlines are suffering a noticeable neglect as well. We’ve eaten more food in the past week than I think we ate all year; definitely more calories. Definitely. I can feel my liver.

It’s not over yet. We have more dinners, more drinks, more friends and family and days filled with driving and negotiating with the car over how little we can get away with spending on gas. Our apartment is a hideous mess, but there’s almost no point in cleaning it. Why bother? We’re just going to have to do it again and again and again.

But the laundry’s going through its rotations, and I’ve found a quiet moment to process the leftovers. There is something meditative about picking meat off of bones; it requires focus, but it’s not strenuous work and the results mean future meals.

Even if we are just in the eye of this seasonal storm, I have found a moment of peace, and in it there is the warmth of bones and the produce that wilted in my crisper finding new life in a pot of stock that will nourish us back to health after December’s frantic gorging finally lets up.

You can’t even smell the cat pee anymore.

Make stock. It will warm your home and then when you’re too tired to do anything tonight or in a few days or next week, you’ll just bring some of it to a simmer with some veggies, a bit of meat and some noodles or grains or legumes and you’ll have an easy (and easily digestible) dinner that won’t take much more than 20 minutes to pull together.

There’s no real recipe. Most of the time I save my veggie scraps in a container in the freezer, and then when we eat a bird or a ham or a lot of bony beef, I put my scraps and bones in a stock pot with some herbs, some salt and pepper and a lemon. I fill the pot to about the 12-litre mark and simmer (never boil) for two hours or maybe more, depending on how the day goes. I usually end up with about eight litres of stock in the end, and that’s enough for eight pots of soup, or eight risottos, or 16 pots of Bolognese sauce or chili.

If you don’t have scraps in your freezer, use a couple of carrots, a few ribs of celery, an onion, the green tops of two leeks, and half a bunch of parsley and as many heads of garlic as you feel like (I always use two or three). For the bones, a carcass from Christmas dinner or a bag of chicken backs from your butcher will be perfectly fine; if you’re using raw backs to start, brown them in a bit of oil in the bottom of the pot with your veggies for extra flavour. But you don’t have to use meat; omit it and you’ll have yourself a perfectly lovely vegetable stock. Add some bay leaves, a handful of black peppercorns, and then just let it go. If anything scummy forms on the top, skim it off. There’s really nothing to it.

Strain it after a couple of hours, then put it back on the stove and simmer for longer to reduce it if you want, or don’t, but salt it at the end after you’ve tasted it. Cool it, then store it in large Mason jars or freezer bags in 4-cup portions.

Trust me on this – make stock. You’ll feel better knowing there’s nutritious, homemade soup in your future.

And enjoy the rest of the holiday season. There’s still fun to be had, and I hope you have it all.

Spaghetti squash muffins.

spaghetti squash muffins

I make a lot of muffins.

Not on purpose, really; I have a picky eater and more produce than I know what to do with and I’ve got to get something that grows into him somehow and he’ll eat baked goods. All the baked goods. So, over the past year or so, I have honed my muffin-making prowess to the point where I believe I could now fill a book with deceptively healthy muffin recipes. When did I get so dull?

If it makes me seem any cooler, I am currently drinking a vodka and soda out of a topless sippy cup because we have a ran-out-of-clean-dishes situation.

Vodka. Topless. There you go, there’s some good stuff, right?

And we have reached that part of the year where all my good intentions in June have manifested in abundance come late-September, and now we’re into October and I have to do something with all the squash. “Good intentions” might be the wrong way to put it – I was a little more delusional than well-intended, I think, because while I love spaghetti squash, I don’t love having to eat a dozen of them all at once, but I never think about that when I’m enthusiastically thumbing seeds into the ground. So, between what grew in the garden and what I couldn’t resist at the farmer’s market, I am forced to get creative.

One does not simply feed a picky eater stringy bits of yellow squash. No.

Fortunately, I’m acing muffins these days and you can put spaghetti squash in muffins. You can. And it’s pretty good.

This recipe calls for 1 1/2 cups of cooked spaghetti squash; most of the time, that’s one whole spaghetti squash. If you’re a little short, just add a bit of applesauce to make up the difference.

Spaghetti squash muffins

  • 2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup rolled oats (not instant or quick-cooking)
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1 tbsp. flax seed
  • 2 tsp. baking soda
  • 2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. Kosher salt
  • 1/2 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cloves
  • 1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
  • 1 1/2 cups cooked and drained spaghetti squash
  • 1 cup grapeseed or other neutral-tasting oil
  • 4 large eggs, beaten
  • 1 tsp. vanilla or maple extract
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts

Cook your spaghetti squash. There are a bunch of ways you can do this – I usually just throw the whole thing into a 400-degree oven and let it go until it’s soft, but that’s not terribly helpful. You can also microwave it, which is faster. Check this list out, and cook it however you like; just be sure to discard the seeds and scrape the flesh into a colander in the sink to drain it; drain for about 15 minutes, after which the squash should be cool enough to work with.

Preheat your oven to 350°F. If you have two muffin pans, you are very lucky – grease them both, or line the little cups with whatever kind of liner you like. I’m cheap, so one muffin pan plus grease it is.

In a large bowl, combine your flours, oats, sugars, flax, baking soda, spices, and salt. Mix well.

In another bowl, mix squash, oil, eggs, and extract. Fold into your dry ingredients until they are just moistened; add your walnuts and fold again.

Spoon your batter into muffin tins until each muffin cup is about three-quarters full. You should get between 21 and 24 muffins.

Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean.

Whoever you’re deceiving with these will never notice that these are kind of good for them, I promise.

Picky.

Green hot sauce.

Serrano and jalapeno peppers

If you have ever thought of pepper-spraying your entire family, but didn’t have the nerve, well, I have an idea for you.

We are now in my very favourite time of the year, because it’s still hot enough to run around without sleeves but the produce is at its most awesome, and I can’t stop blowing my paycheque on ridiculous quantities of stone fruit, tomatoes, and peppers. Nick swore out loud on Sunday when I decided his penance for a weekend camping trip was to Tetris the hundred pounds of farm market bounty I’d managed to lug home into the fridge; there is simply no more room, and I can’t stop. It’s too good. It’s all too good.

“You have to do something about this,” he said, shoving the door closed. “No one needs this much damn zucchini.”

Well, I beg to differ. Let’s not even talk about everything that’s suddenly ripe in the garden. Nick certainly doesn’t want to talk about it.

So, because I am responsible and have an unlimited tolerance for a humid, sweltering apartment, I have been canning the many things I brought home, because the only thing that makes Nick happier than a fridge that won’t close are cupboards that can’t contain the groceries. I made hot sauce. It’s basically sriracha, but green.

We all paid a little bit for this, but it was worth it. Open a window if you do this; if you have a camp stove or a barbecue with a side burner, then cook this outside. Or, if everyone you live with is being a real jerk about the harvest season, then reduce a pound and a half of hot peppers with all their seeds right smack in the middle of your 900 square-foot apartment and listen to them whine and whine and whine.

They’ll forget all about it when they’re spooning green gold onto their sausages come February.

Note: Ideally you will make this using a food mill. If you don’t have a food mill, start by seeding the peppers (if you don’t want this hot-damn hot), then process in a blender or food processor before proceeding to the simmering/reduction stage. The finished product is not too too hot; it’s flavourful with a nice, slow burn.

Green hot sauce

Homemade green hot sauce

(Makes about five 250mL/1-cup jars.)

  • 1 1/2 lbs. serrano or jalapeño peppers, or a combination
  • 1 lb. onion, peeled and chopped
  • 2 heads garlic, cloves separated and peeled
  • 3 cups distilled white vinegar
  • 3 tbsp. granulated sugar
  • 4 tsp. Kosher salt

Remove the stems from your peppers and chop them roughly. Throw them into a heavy-bottomed, non-reactive pot (such as enameled cast iron or stainless steel) with all the other ingredients, and bring them to a simmer over medium-high heat.

Cover, and cook for 15 minutes until soft.

Meanwhile, sterilize 5 jars in a large stock pot; you’ll want to boil the jars in water that comes to about two inches over the tops of the jars. Boil for 20 minutes.

Remove the chilies from the heat, and spoon the peppers and liquid into a food mill positioned over a large glass bowl. Process through the food mill until there’s nothing more running through. Scrape the bottom of the food mill into the bowl.

Pour strained pepper mixture back into your pot, return to medium heat, and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes, until reduced by about half.

Spoon into sterilized jars and wipe the rims with a piece of damp paper towel. Tap the jars to dislodge any trapped air. Place sterilized lids on top, then screw on the rings; you want them just tight enough that they’re closed, but that you could still unscrew using your thumb and finger. Process the sealed jars in boiling water for an additional ten minutes. Remove using canning tongs and let cool for 24 hours. Check that jars are sealed, and then store sealed jars in a cool, dark place. Spoon the vinegary, garlicky pungent stuff over February’s wintry food and relive the magic of a fridge brimming with life.

finished sauce

Bok choi with mushrooms.

bokchoi

I always think I am going to have so much time, and then I commit to a million things and am surprised when I can’t do any of them well. Well, no more! (That is probably untrue – just ask me to do something.) This summer has seen a shift in my priorities; I want to do a lot of things better, and, I hope, a few things pretty well. I want to make pickles and play outside and write books and blog posts and can homemade baby food for my friend who isn’t doing so well at the moment, and I want to do all of this without feeling like I’m letting anyone/everyone down.

So, with no small amount of despair, I let go of our community garden plot – we simply weren’t able to keep up with it. To be honest, I’m sure that we would have been kicked out eventually anyway – we hadn’t been showing up anywhere near often enough.

The community garden is a 15-minute drive to a spot we used to be able to walk to, and when we moved in December it was to a place across the street from a friend who has abundant garden space that she let us have access to. This new spot isn’t as pretty as our last place, though it is a lot bigger. Last night to make a salad I just hopped the fence across the street and thinned some of the beets, pulled a couple of radishes, and snipped some leaves off one of the heads of lettuce. We were no longer a part of the community in our other spot; here, we are neighbours.

The back part of the garden

The nice thing about our new space being so close is that I can walk by and plan dinner around what’s currently thriving; recently, it was the bok choi. Whenever I buy bok choi, it’s in heads like thick leaf lettuce, or tiny little bunches of the baby variety. I guess we’re growing a different kind, because ours is growing in the way chard does – long stalks off a middle stem with big, soft, droopy leaves. Whatever variety it is, it’s delicious.

In the spirit of saving time (because who even has any?!), here’s a quick dish of greens and mushrooms; you can use chard, or kale, or bok choi or whatever you’re growing or have bought. It makes enough for two large side dishes, or four small ones. It takes ten minutes if you’re a fast chopper.

I hope you like – and have the time – for this one.

Bok choi and mushrooms with trout

Bok Choi with Mushrooms

  • 1 tbsp. sesame oil
  • 1 tbsp. butter
  • 1 onion, halved and sliced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tsp. minced fresh ginger
  • 1/2 tsp. dried red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1/2 lb. mushrooms, sliced
  • 1/2 lb. bok choi, chopped
  • 2 tbsp. soy sauce

In a skillet, heat sesame oil and butter over medium-high heat until the butter begins to sizzle.

Add onion, and cook for one minute.

Add ginger and garlic, and both kinds of pepper.

Cook for two minutes, until everything is soft and translucent and fragrant. Add mushrooms, then bok choi, then the soy sauce, and toss the whole thing together. Cover, drop heat to medium, and cook for three minutes.

Serve with fish or barbecued meats; it would also be good with fried tofu.

DSCF5175

Strawberry Salsa.

Berry salsa

 

My kitchen is sticky with berry mess, and it is wonderful. I have blended them into smoothies for breakfast, pureed and diced them for muffins for the toddler, and fantasized about weather reliable enough for a pavlova that drips with lemon curd and macerated berries. Strawberries are back! I am not cranky about anything today.

But we have a lot of them, because I never know how much is enough until I have too many. No math skills, this one. I still have frozen strawberries in the freezer from last year’s picking/buying binge. Who could say no to summer fruit after too many months of last autumn’s apples?! Impossible.

So, we do what we can with them, and we do everything with them, and tonight because we were having fried white fish, I decided to make a salsa of them; I am very happy to report that my total inability to calculate even the simplest thing has left me with an abundance of salsa – I will get to eat it later, while watching TV, with a big bowl of tortilla chips. Success, no matter how you do the math. Especially if you can wrangle someone else to scrub the sticky off the kitchen floor and counters.

If you don’t like cilantro, I’ve made this with basil and it’s equally good. Also I take the seeds out of the jalapeno peppers but leave the membrane, because I like this salsa just a little bit spicy.

Strawberry Salsa

  • 2 cups diced strawberries, in cubes of about 1/4″
  • 1 large avocado, diced the same
  • 1 large or 2 medium jalapeno peppers, seeded and finely chopped
  • 3 scallions, finely chopped
  • 1/4 cup packed fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
  • Zest and juice of one lime
  • 2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. sea salt

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl. Toss to combine, and let sit for 30 minutes in the fridge before serving. Serve over chicken, fish, grilled halloumi, or in a bowl on its own with all the chips you can eat.

More salsa

Roasted cauliflower soup.

Gloom.

This is the hardest part of the year to get through. I have no patience left – please, no more squash! I’m done with potatoes. And I have no kindness left in my heart for kale. Let’s have some asparagus, already!

Tossed.

Spring gave us a sneak preview last weekend, a single day of sunshine and warmth where I ran around with bare arms and ate a bahn mi sandwich in a park while the baby learned the pleasures of sliding and swing-sets. And then things went back to normal, and the sky turned grey, and it has been that way ever since.

This time of year feels like purgatory. Molly Waffles has been pacing the apartment and pressing her paws to the window, scratching at the glass. She is desperate to go outside, but there is a family of raccoons out there, and city raccoons are the size of adolescent black bears and she would be little more than an appetizer. I am similarly desperate for something new and different. Maybe that’s strawberries and pink wine in the sunshine, or maybe it’s something bigger? I will be 30 in 30 days, and I am starting to feel like I’ve been pacing around and scratching at windows, like it’s time to make a mad dash for whatever’s beyond here, whether that means outrunning city raccoons or something even scarier.

Roasted.

Or maybe the wet that seeps in through the holes in my boots has found its way into my bones and now there’s mildew in my bloodstream. Maybe this itch for something fresh is just impatience, because something really good – like peach season – is on its way. And maybe what I need isn’t so much an escape as a way to bide time. If that’s the case, then soup will drag us all through these last dark days before the sun brings back all the green things that make us feel alive.

Soup.

Fingers crossed, anyway. We’ll know better what’s out there for us once the sky clears.

Roasted cauliflower soup

(Serves 4.)

  • 1 small head of cauliflower (1 1/2 lbs)
  • 1 onion
  • 1 bulb of garlic, cloves separated and peeled
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 tsp. coarse salt
  • 4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
  • 1/2 cup slivered almonds, toasted
  • Zest and juice of half a lemon
  • 1/2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 cup shredded aged white cheddar cheese (between 1/4 and 1/2 lb.)
  • 1 cup milk

Preheat your oven to 325°F. Chop cauliflower and onion, and place in a large bowl with garlic cloves. Pour olive oil over top, mixing thoroughly with your hands so that all the pieces and bits are coated. Sprinkle with salt, and pour into an oven-safe pot – ideally one that will transfer from your oven to your stove-top.

Roast for 45 to 60 minutes, or until golden and fragrant. Stir halfway through cooking for even browning.

Remove from the oven to the stove-top, and add almonds, stock, lemon zest and juice, and Worcestershire sauce. Simmer over medium heat for ten to 15 minutes, until the almonds have softened. Remove from heat and blend with an immersion blender or regular blender, then return to heat. Add cheese, stir, then add milk. Taste, adjusting seasoning as needed and thinning to your desired consistency with more stock or water.